“This thing alone had to be mourned the most,
This lamented: how when anyone would give up
when they realized they had contracted the disease
As condemned to die, they would stretch out with a sad heart,
Surrendering their spirit while considering the rites of the dead.
For the spread of that greedy sickness did not stop
Even for a single moment from one to another,
Thick together as woolly flocks and horned heads—
That’s the reason why grave was piling on grave.
Whoever was reluctant to see their own sick,
For this very excessive love of life and fear of death
They were punished eventually with a foul and evil end,
As deserters without help, paid back for their neglect.
But those who stayed to help faced contagion too,
And the suffering which shame compelled them to meet.
The pleading voice of the weary mixed with cries of complaint.
Well, the best kinds of souls met death like this.
…Then some falling upon others, fighting to bury their masses
Of dead, worn out by tears and grief as they returned.
They surrendered to their beds for the better part.
No one could be found anywhere who was untouched by the disease
By the death, by the sorrow of times like these.”
Illud in his rebus miserandum magnopere unum
aerumnabile erat, quod ubi se quisque videbat
implicitum morbo, morti damnatus ut esset,
deficiens animo maesto cum corde iacebat,
funera respectans animam amittebat ibidem.
quippe etenim nullo cessabant tempore apisci
ex aliis alios avidi contagia morbi,
lanigeras tamquam pecudes et bucera saecla;
idque vel in primis cumulabat funere funus.
nam quicumque suos fugitabant visere ad aegros,
vitai nimium cupidos mortisque timentis
poenibat paulo post turpi morte malaque,
desertos, opis expertis, incuria mactans.
qui fuerant autem praesto, contagibus ibant
atque labore, pudor quem tum cogebat obire
blandaque lassorum vox mixta voce querellae.
optimus hoc leti genus ergo quisque subibat.
. . . . . . .
inque aliis alium, populum sepelire suorum
certantes; lacrimis lassi luctuque redibant;
inde bonam partem in lectum maerore dabantur.
nec poterat quisquam reperiri, quem neque morbus
nec mors nec luctus temptaret tempore tali.
In a recent article, Sarah Scullin collects misandrist myths and topics from Greece and Rome. Reading some ancient scholarship can make us see why someone might find such ideas attractive. The following lines and commentary from the Homeric Scholia come from the scene at the end of book 1 of the Iliad where Hera talks to Zeus about his recent conversation with Thetis.
αὐτίκα κερτομίοισι Δία Κρονίωνα προσηύδα·
“Immediately, she addressed Kronos’ son Zeus with heart-rending words.”
Schol. bT ad Il. 1.539
“heart-rending”: words which hit the heart. For, both of these things are womanly: to be suspicious and to not restrain speech.”
We have posted before about Odysseus’ sister Ktimene. She is mentioned by the swineherd Eumaios but never by Odysseus. The scholia connect her to one of Odysseus’ companions. The evidence for this seems to be the fact that Ktimene was sent to Same for marriage (where Eurylochus is from) and a kinship term used for him by Odysseus. Also of interest, according to the scholion, Odysseus may have had more sisters.
Homer, Odyssey 15.364-41
Strong Ktimenê, the youngest of the children she bore.
I was raised with her, and she honored me little less.
But when we both made it to much-praised youth,
They gave her to Samê and received much in return
But she gave me a cloak, tunic and clothing
Dressing me finely and give me sandals for my feet
And sent me to the field. But she loved me more in her heart.
“So he spoke, and I was turning over in my thoughts
As I began to draw the sharp-edged sword next to my thick thigh,
Whether I should cut off his head and drive him to the ground
Even though he really was my relative. But our companions
Were restraining me with gentle words from all sides.”
“Pêos: A relative by marriage. In-law. Also, “in-lawness” [Pêosunê], relation-by-marriage. There is also Pêôn [genitive plural], for “of relatives-by-marriage. Homer has: “relatives and friends” [Il. 3.163]
“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully.
Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her. She treated her like her own child and used to give her delights* [athurmata] for her heart.
But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope,
But she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurumakhos.
She was reproaching Odysseus with abusive words.
“Wretched stranger, you are completely insane—
You don’t want to go sleep in the smith’s house
Or into a lodge but instead you say so much boldly
Here among the many men. And you are not at all afraid
In your heart. Really, wine has overtaken your thoughts or else
Your mind is always the kind to babble meaningless things.
Are you so confident because you defeated the beggar Iros?
May no other better than Iros quickly arise
Who might bash your head between his two strong hands
And drive you out of the house once he drenches you with so much blood.”
Then very-clever Odysseus answered as he glared at her:
“I will quickly tell Telemachus what you are saying, bitch,
After he comes here so that he can tear you apart by the limbs.”
[athurmata] Melanthô used to get ornaments and toys, and Penelope did not deprive her of delights, but instead was doing these things to please her—it is clear, this means material for children. For athurmata are the games of children.
“Athurma: a children’s toy. Josephus writes: “[the man who] was a toy of the king and was put on display for jokes and laughter while drinking.” And elsewhere: “it is not the place of men to waste time with children’s toys” In the Epigrams: “They stripped it clean and dedicated it near the road as a fine toy.” Instead of dedication: in Cratinus’ Odysseuses: “a new-fangled delight was made.”
Fr. 3 Seneca the Elder ( Donat. Vita Vergilii, 29.)
“Seneca reports that Julius Montanus was in the habit of saying that he would have stolen certain things from Vergil if he could have his voice, and comportment, and dramatic ability. [He added] that the same verses sounded beautifuly when Vergil was reciting but without him they were meaningless and mute.”
3. Et Seneca tradidit Iulium Montanum poetam solitum dicere involaturum se Vergilio quaedam, si et vocem posset et os et hypocrisin; eosdem enim versus ipso pronuntiante bene sonare, sine illo inanes esse mutosque.
“Then, when they had procured shelter, clothing and fire
And woman joined man in one [home]
They were known, they saw their own children born
And the race of man first began to grow weak.
For fire cared for them so that quaking bodies
Could no longer endure the cold under the roof of the sky;
Venus whittled down their strength and children
Easily broke their parents’ proud character with their charms.”
Inde casas postquam ac pellis ignemque pararunt
et mulier coniuncta viro concessit in unum
* * *
cognita sunt, prolemque ex se videre creatam,
tum genus humanum primum mollescere coepit.
ignis enim curavit, ut alsia corpora frigus
non ita iam possent caeli sub tegmine ferre,
et Venus inminuit viris puerique parentum
blanditiis facile ingenium fregere superbum.
“To begin with, they wrongly reject prior meditation on future affairs. For there is nothing which works so well to calm or relieve anxiety as much as the thought throughout your life that there is nothing that is can’t happen; there’s no contemplation better for our human condition as the law of of life and learning obedience to it—this doesn’t make us sad all the time but keeps us from ever being so. For the person who reflects on the nature of things, on the variety of life, and the precarity of human existence is not sad in considering these things but is carrying out the duty of wisdom in the fullest way.
For they pursue both in enjoying the particular harvest of philosophy by considering what happens in human life and in suffering adverse outcomes by cleansning with a three-part solace. First, by previously accepting the possibility of misfortune—which is the most way of weakening and managing any annoyance and second, by learning that human events must be endured humanely; and third, by recognizing that there is nothing evil except for blame and there is no blame when the event is something against which no human can endure.”
Principio male reprehendunt praemeditationem rerum futurarum. Nihil est enim quod tam obtundat elevetque aegritudinem quam perpetua in omni vita cogitatio nihil esse, quod non accidere possit, quam meditatio condicionis humanae, quam vitae lex commentatioque parendi, quae non hoc adfert, ut semper maereamus, sed ut numquam. Neque enim qui rerum naturam, qui vitae varietatem, qui imbecillitatem generis humani cogitat, maeret, cum haec cogitat, sed tum vel maxime sapientiae fungitur munere. Utrumque enim consequitur, ut et considerandis rebus humanis proprio philosophiae fruatur officio et adversis casibus triplici consolatione sanetur: primum quod posse accidere diu cogitavit, quae cogitatio una maxime molestias omnes extenuat et diluit; deinde quod humana humane ferenda intelligit; postremo quod videt malum nullum esse nisi culpam, culpam autem nullam esse, cum id, quod ab homine non potuerit praestari, evenerit.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura .540-147
“Unless matter itself had been eternal before our time
Everything would have already reverted to nothing
And whatever we see would also have come from nothing.
But since I have demonstrated that nothing can be made from nothing
And what has been made cannot be returned to nothing
There ought to be a primal creation for the immortal body
Where everything diffuses again at the final moment
to supply matter itself for the rebirth of things.”
raeterea nisi materies aeterna fuisset,
antehac ad nilum penitus res quaeque redissent,
de niloque renata forent quaecumque videmus.
at quoniam supra docui nil posse creari
de nilo neque quod genitum est ad nil revocari,
esse inmortali primordia corpore debent,
dissolui quo quaeque supremo tempore possint,
materies ut suppeditet rebus reparandis.
“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”
῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·
I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.
Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being.
From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t.
To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.
It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.
In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.
By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).
All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble).
In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey.
(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February. I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).
But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion?
My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.
Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem.
I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts.
(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)
If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad.
It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey.
In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany: “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches. I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014.
And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.
And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)
Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story.
I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.
Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.
I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since.
Warning: Any resemblance to current events is not accidental.
Hesiod, Works & Days, 202-212
now I will tell a fable to rulers;
they can think it through for themselves:
this is how Hawk addressed mottled-throat Nightingale,
carrying her high up into the clouds
gored on his talons,
as she, in the grips of two hooked claws,
he spoke to her like one who holds all the cards:
“dearie, why the hollering?
one much stronger
has you now.
you’ll go here, there . . .
wherever I take you,
even with your talent for song.
if it pleases me, I’ll make a meal of you.
or, I’ll let you go.
silly, she who thinks to say no to her superior in strength.
she won’t win.
and along with disgrace,
there’s the pain she’ll suffer.”
thus spoke Hawk,
a bird stretching its wings.
Schol. ad. Od. 8.17 (On why Odysseus is only responsible for the companions in his particular ship)
“According to the proverb “Common ship, common safety”
κατὰ τὴν παροιμίαν “κοινὴ ναῦς κοινὴ σωτηρία,”
Sophocles, Antigone 175–190 (Creon speaking)
“It is impossible to really learn a man’s
mind, thought and opinion before he’s been initiated
into the offices and laws of the state.
Indeed—whoever attempts to direct the country
but does not make use of the best advice
as he keeps his tongue frozen out of fear
Seems to me to be the worst kind of person now and long ago.
Anyone who thinks his friend is more important than the country,
I say that they live nowhere.
May Zeus who always sees everything witness this:
I could never be silent when I saw ruin
Overtaking my citizens instead of safety.
And I could never make my country’s enemy a friend
For myself, because I know this crucial thing: The state is the ship which saves us And we may make friends only if it remains afloat.”
Heraclitus the Commentator, in defending the application of allegorical readings to Homer, argues that allegory is of considerable antiquity—used clearly by Archilochus when he compares the troubles of a war (fr. 54) and by Alcaeus when he compares the troubles of a tyranny to a storm at sea. He writes that Alcaeus “compares the troubles of a tyranny to the turmoil of a stormy sea.” (τὰς γὰρ τυραννικὰς ταραχὰς ἐξ ἴσου χειμερίῳ προσεικάζει καταστήματι θαλάττης, Homeric Problems 5.8)
Alcaeus fr. 326
“I cannot make sense of the clash of the winds
One wave whirls from this side,
Another wave comes from the other, and we in the middle
Are borne in our dark ship
Toiling ever on in this great storm.
The swell has taken he mast
And the sail is completely transparent—
There are great tears through it
And the anchors have broken free…”
Alcaeus, fr. 6a [P. Oxy. 1789 1 i 15–19, ii 1–17, 3 i, 12 + 2166(e)4]
“Now this higher wave comes harder than the one before
And will bring us much toil to face
When it overcomes the ship
Let us strengthen the ship’s sides
As fast as we can and hurry into a safe harbor.
Let no weak hesitation take anyone.
For a great contest is clearly before us.
Recall your previous toil.
Today, let every man be dedicated.
And may we never cause shame
To our noble parents who lie beneath the earth”
Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.
They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.
Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?